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Violent video games: Why experts want more research and what parents can do

Published: Tuesday, April 9 2013 12:15 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — American parents and America's president share a question they want answered, once and for all: Just what are the consequences when a child plays a violent video game, or plays such games repeatedly across years?

For decades, research teams have waded into the controversy about the effects of violent video games on children. But now that researchers are hip deep in data, gaming technology is rapidly evolving and the results still aren't clear enough to allow them to quantify fully the negative effects of violent video games on children.

After all, the amount spent each year on shooter and action video games is so gargantuan — approximately $6.3 billion — that it's about the same as what the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball combine to spend each year on player salaries.

The simmering contention about the consequences of children playing violent games heated back to a boil in December after police found "graphically violent video games" at mass murderer Adam Lanza's house following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. Detectives there have explored whether Lanza was re-enacting a video game like "Call of Duty," one of his apparent favorites, the Hartford Courant reported, and one of the best-selling video games franchises of all-time. Rated "Mature" for "intense violence" and "blood and gore," the "Call of Duty" franchise has sold more than 160 million games since its inception a decade ago.

In January, President Obama asked Congress to give $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control for scientific research into the relationship between "video games, media images and violence." But last month, the effort to get Congress to pay for more research appeared to stall, a victim of the cash-drenched video game lobby, according to the New York Daily News.

In between those developments, the New York Times published two prominent stories about the consequences of violence in video games, NPR reported its own piece on the topic, and the not-for-profit watchdog group Common Sense Media released a 22-page research brief about violent media that reserved its most pointed policy recommendations for video games.

Clearly the debate about these games remains as polarizing as ever.

On the one hand, researchers rely on reams of lab studies to indict violent video games for increasing aggression among participants. However, many public-health experts simply shrug at laboratory findings they consider irrelevant to what happens in the real world. Instead, they focus on "big picture" trends that show Americans quadrupling their inflation-adjusted spending on video games over the past 20 years at precisely the same time that violent crimes are falling to historic lows.

Despite the lack of consensus, pertinent information abounds. And looking at violent video games through three distinct lenses can be a catalyst for helping parents feel informed and confident about adapting household video game policies that best serve their family’s needs.

A ‘Common Sense’ approach

Jim Steyer isn’t just a veteran of the roiling debate over how violent video games affect young minds — he's also the man the L.A. Times anointed in 2010 as “public enemy No. 1” to the software behemoths that manufacture video games. It's a designation he earned with passionate advocacy like his aggressive support for a California law to ban the sale of violent video games to minor children.

Steyer teaches at Stanford and is the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. He wrote the 2003 book “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children.” As he assesses today’s media landscape, he believes current events have created a unique window of opportunity for a “renewed focus” on combating the “broader culture of violence” characterized by excessively violent video games.

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